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Thursday, 9 July 2009

USA: Charity blacklist violates rights of Muslims, warns ACLU

WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN) - Terrorism financing laws, used by the government to designate some U.S.-based Muslim charities as terrorist organizations, have come under fire as violating Muslims' right to religious freedom.

The laws “create a climate of fear and distrust in law enforcement and undermine America's diplomatic efforts in Muslim countries,” said the 164-page report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Blocking Faith, Freezing Charities,” released June 16.

Furthermore, the reduction in charitable aid to the Muslim world and the perception that Muslims are unfairly targeted hurt the U.S. image abroad, especially among Arabs and Muslims who harbor anti-U.S. sentiments and with whom President Barack Obama is trying to win favor.

President Obama even referred to the difficulties U.S. Muslims have giving to charities as part of his recent speech meant to start a “new beginning” with the Muslim world.

In terms of terrorism and those global affairs, the report said the treatment of U.S. Muslim charities “actually undermine(s) counterterrorism efforts.”

The laws were built upon existing terrorism financing laws in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington. The George W. Bush administration expanded the Treasury Department's authority over such issues by executive order—without going through Congress to approve the changes in the law.

Just three months after the announcement, the three largest Muslim-American charities had all their assets frozen, “effectively shutting each of them down,” said the report.

In what the report called a “pattern of conduct that has violated the fundamental rights of American Muslim charities and has chilled American Muslims' charitable giving in accordance with their faith,” seven charities to date have been designated as “terrorist organizations” by the Treasury Department.

Perhaps most troubling, the groups are given little chance to stand up for themselves because of Treasury processes that shut down the charities “(w)ithout notice, and through the use of secret evidence and non-transparent procedures”—tactics the ACLU cites in the cases of six of the charities.

Only three of the groups have been charged and only one convicted of any wrongdoing.

Furthermore, said the report, the Bush administration then would “trumpet” its actions and make “inflammatory and unfounded or exaggerated allegations” about the connections between the charities and terror groups.

“The effect of these government actions,” said the report, “is to create a general climate in which law-abiding American Muslims fear making charitable donations in accordance with their religious beliefs.”

The over 120 Muslim American donors and charity officials interviewed by the report painted a picture where donors are afraid to fulfill their religious obligation to give to charity because they fear investigation by the authorities and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said the report's author, ACLU human rights researcher Jennifer Turner.

Ms. Turner said she spent a year traveling the U.S. and interviewing donors, charity officials, and officials at the Treasury Department for the report.

“Zakat,” as followers of Islam call charitable giving, is one of the “five pillars,” or core beliefs of the faith. The “chill” resulting from the shutdowns and close government scrutiny obstructs “free and full exercise” of Islam.

In the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Congress is forbidden from “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.

Mr. Obama, in his Cairo speech designed to reach out to the Muslim world, acknowledged that fulfillment of the Muslim duty of zakat had been made more difficult in the U.S.

“Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it,” said President Obama. “For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That's why I'm committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.”

The ACLU report notes that though the distinction between legitimate humanitarian aid and aid that helps terrorists must be made, the zeal with which the Bush administration pursued these policies was undermining the very efforts it aimed to promote.

“The ACLU's research showed that these policies and practices are alienating Muslim Americans; are damaging America's reputation and diplomatic efforts in Muslim countries by giving the appearance of a war on Islam; are fomenting fear that drives Muslim Americans' charitable donation underground; and are creating a chilling effect on overseas humanitarian relief efforts,” said the report.

“Each of these collateral consequences is counterproductive to the U.S. government's efforts to counter terrorism,” it said.

The report also said that the anti-terrorism financing campaign could prove an obstacle to Mr. Obama's outreach because it contradicts statements he made in Turkey that the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world would “cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism.”

The report notes that another part of the U.S. relationship with the rest of the world is hurt by the efforts: “Ambiguities of the policies on material support and the climate of fear these polices have created have impacted vital humanitarian work overseas and cost lives, counter to U.S. interest abroad.”

The report urged Mr. Obama, among other recommendations, to repeal Executive Order 13224, which created much of the unchecked power to designate groups as terror organizations, review the current watch list, unfreeze funds after a set period, issue an executive order prohibiting racial profiling, and “cease public raids of charities under investigation.”

The group also provided a lengthy list of recommendations for the FBI, the Congress, and the Departments of the Treasury, State, and Justice.

The ACLU rejected the idea of a “white list” of government-approved charities because it could discriminate and allow for abuses by whatever government agency was in charge of regulating it.

(By Ali Gharib)

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